Food is nourishment for all living things and yet when it comes to our food we generally discount the notion that we are not the only animals with expectations of nourishment and sustenance. The food chain contains the ultimate political dictum of the bigger, the stronger and, since our arrival, the smartest get to be at the top of the food chain. Might is right is what some political scientists have made of Darwin.
Food is also money. In America it is unbelievable amounts of money. The average supermarket stocks over 40,000 products. This is only the illusion of choice: the medium of consumer society has made people believe that they are getting a right to vote with their consumption choices. Sadly, most of the food in any typical supermarket in America is made by 4 companies. They are Nestle, Tyson, Kraft and PepsiCo. These companies and MacDonald’s (who is the biggest purchaser of beef in the USA) have wrested control of the way the vast majority of food is grown in the States. (www.foodprocessing.com)
These companies are of course not above promoting their cause by lobbying and throwing their immense importance around. In 2000 the food industry made $900 billion. (www.foodpolitics.com). You might not be surprised that Google search is not very forthcoming about how much money is in food; just as few places mention how much the arms industry in America makes and how much of the tax dollar the military complex spends.
One of the consequences of this food cartel system in America is that margins are everything. Companies are dealing with such vast amounts of raw ingredients that any action that reduces the time for an operation by just a second or any 0.1% saving at any point in the process of getting the food on the shelves results in massive savings. Over the years food has been turned into a factory product. Workers typically do one job over and over. Everything is mechanized and standardized. Tomatoes are picked green and ripened using gas, chickens are ‘grown’ rather than raised. The workforce are brutalized with monotony and low pay. Suppliers or ‘growers’ of chickens are normally in debt to the tune of $50,000 or more – such is the power of the contract. In short using immigrant labor, treating animals as less than animals, under paying the workforce and cutting every corner imaginable makes staggering amounts of money. This money buys power.
Not surprisingly there is very little government over-sight of the food companies controlling America’s food. If a company is found complicit in injury or death to any of its customers through one of its products money is handed out but the law is blushingly reluctant to remove a license or revoke a right to business. One woman whose son died of e-coli from a hamburger is struggling to put ‘Kevin’s Law’ on the statute books. Her law is simple: any company that repeatedly poisons a customer must have its license taken away.
There are many who believe that the free and unregulated market is good and that the market has its own natural wisdom, but do they want to eat food that this philosophy produces. In the slaughter of cows the process is done so quickly that a certain percentage of the last feces of the cow before death ends up in the final ‘beef’.
Organic food is almost by definition better than processed foods, fast foods as well as vegetables, fruits and meats. The organic food industry is also mostly dominated by big companies that ‘manufacture’ food. Much organic food is grown hydroponically and with grow lights. It might be ‘organic’ but it doesn’t mean it’s natural.
Natural is a good word to describe how food should be and its antonym unnatural is the best way to describe most of the 40,000 choices that supermarket shoppers get. One word – corn. 2% of land in America is dedicated to growing corn. Corn grain is used to make food for humans and food for the animals that are ‘grown’. It is also used for silage, for high oil corn for feed to animals so their metabolism slows down and they become (chronically sometimes) obese. Corn is also used as the basis for many synthetic ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup that can be found in a vast array of processed foods. There seems no end to the usefulness and profitability of corn. It can also be used to make ethanol for the auto industry. Corn is good but it has obvious limitations. (www.epa.gov)
Monoculture agriculture is making the soil and the crops weak. Pesticides that poison the earth cannot be made toxic enough to keep up with the Darwinian determination of bugs to get at our food. Genetically modified food is the natural consequence of monoculture in agriculture. Bringing biology on board and doing some genetic tampering can produce marvelous results – bigger, more colorful and damn near indestructible while growing food stuffs that bear only a passing resemblance to ‘natural’ food. Tampering has of course the unintended consequence of being fed back into the original gene matrix when GM crops are introduced to an area. Genetically engineered food is altering the program and we have no backup copy if the experiment goes wrong.
It might therefore not come as a surprise that people in developing countries with more ‘natural’ agriculture tend to eat much healthier food (if they can find the money to feed themselves) because the food is grown in a better way. Cancer, obesity and diabetes are problems that are major killers in the ‘West’ but only minor killers in the rest of the world. Eating rice, fufu, noodles, bread, ugali, bananas, gnocci, bulgur, nuts, rye, sago, quinoa etc. as a staple occasionally instead of corn might explain along with shit in the meat why so many people die of cancer and heart disease in the USA.
Many communities in South Asia and Polynesia have the saturated fat coconut oil and coconut milk every day. They are not having coronary thrombosis; nor are they obese. Studies have been done to show how some islands were much healthier places before polyunsaturated fats (made from corn and soy) were introduced into the food supply.
Coconut oil is just one of the many examples of healthy foods that are sometimes referred to as functional food. Coconut water is an exact match with blood plasma and used for emergency IV. It also contains more electrolytes than sports drinks. Coconut oil and milk contain lauric acid (that is also found in mother’s milk) that is an antimicrobial agent. And coconut oil stimulates thyroid activity and hence improves the immunity system and metabolism.
The science of functional foods and the agriculture to make these foods naturally in a way that is not polluting and in way that is sustainable is the true politics of food.